The New Governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, and the Issue of Critical Race Theory

Republican Glenn Youngkin’s successful run for governor in Virginia might be giving us a key indicator of the direction in which this country is headed.


Kate Magee Joyce, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

After years of Democratic control in a state that has been gradually moving to the left, little-known Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin has been elected governor of Virginia. What policies did he run on to manage to upset the race? What does his win mean for Virginia, and what could it mean for the nation as a whole?

Over his reelection campaign for Virginia Governor, Democratic incumbent Terry McAuliffe ran on a typical progressive agenda, advocating for reforms on healthcare, minimum wage, and other issues that are currently making up the forefront of American politics.

His Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity CEO with no political background, decided to try something new. Instead of focusing his platform on traditional conservative issues like decreasing crime or debt, he made ‘critical race theory’ front and center, becoming the latest development in an attempt by the alt-right to misconstrue reality.

Critical race theory is a concept in legal academia meant to examine structural inequality in America, and shortcomings in solving the problem. It is not something commonplace in K-12 school curriculums. It’s been misconstrued by Youngkin and other right-wing political figures in order to rally support to ban teaching about racial inequality in America’s public schools. 

Unfortunately, Youngkin is far from alone in pushing this agenda forward. As of December 2021, nine states have passed legislation banning the discussion of structural racism in schools, and another twenty have introduced legislation to ban it.

None of these bills actually mention critical race theory, but their context very clearly implies that these bills are a direct effect of the issue becoming so widespread. The specific wording only means so much. In fact, the term “critical race theory” itself has lost momentum in the last few months; it’s become less and less popular among major conservative news outlets since its rise over the summer of 2021. 

That doesn’t mean the underlying issue that led to the talks and bans has faded away to any extent whatsoever — racism remains a structural issue just as it was before. It’s seen in these laws. One year after Trump left office, the rhetoric that he made front and center has only gained more and more traction, bringing with it major political consequences.

So how does Glen Youngkin’s victory on November 2, 2021 tie into all of this? A Fox News exit poll found that one in four voters in the election believed critical race theory was the “single most important factor” in deciding their vote. It’s clear that the issue of race and abandoning American traditions has become a key method of rallying support from non-college educated white voters. Critical race theory was Youngkin’s way of harnessing the demographic. 

McAuliffe isn’t without blame for allowing the issue to become such an asset for Youngkin. His response was criticized for not taking a more aggressive stance against critical race theory: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” said McAuliffe. He didn’t tackle the lie at its roots, but instead thought he could just shove it out of the way. Consequently, his lack of caution allowed critical race theory to expand into a cornerstone of Youngkin’s platform — ultimately bringing McAuliffe to lose his seat.

It’s worth considering the possibility that critical race theory alone wasn’t what made McAuliffe lose. It was, after all, an off-year for the Democratic party — historically, gaining control of the presidency tends to mean losing everything else.

Youngkin’s prioritization of racially charged rhetoric undoubtedly still had a major role to play in the governor’s election, and is a good indicator of what we might see in this year’s midterms in November 2022. It’s too early to call anything for certain, but the one guarantee right now is that things are not looking good for Democrats. This is only the beginning.

A Fox News exit poll found that one in four voters in the election believed critical race theory was the “single most important factor” in deciding their vote.